How to reduce your dog's anxiety on Bonfire NightEmma Frain 21 October 2021
Written by Veterinary Surgeon Dr. Linda Simon
For some owners and dogs, bonfire night and the whole of firework season is a huge source of tension and stress. Dogs suddenly become a shell of their normal selves and owners are constantly on edge, worried about their pet’s wellbeing.
Of course, not every dog will be fearful of the loud bangs and shrill screeches but a large number are. In fact, up to 1 in 4 dogs can have a noise phobia. A dog’s fear may be obvious, though some of the more subtle signs can be easily overlooked.
While canine anxiety isn’t an easy issue to tackle, there are plenty of things we can do. Addressing the issue is something that can be done alongside your vet and a canine behaviourist. Patience is key as this is not something that resolves over night.
Why are dogs scared of fireworks?
This is a good question. What is at that sets some dogs on edge while others sit calmly by, bang after bang?
For certain breeds, their genetics are sure to play a role. Gun dogs that are used to being close to loud explosions are less commonly affected than other breeds. One Norwegian study showed that the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier and Lagotto Romagnolo were the most likely to have a noise sensitivity. Spaniels tend to be under-represented.
A dog’s early experiences can shape them. If they have had lots of positive experiences exposing them to loud noises and fireworks from a young age, they are more likely to be tolerant of them when older.
Anxiety prone dogs, for example, those who already have separation anxiety and a fear of new places, tend to be more affected. Conversely, confident dogs who are social and cope well in other situations are far less likely to be worried around fireworks.
Signs that your dog is scared or anxious of fireworks
Signs of a noise phobia will vary from individual to individual and can include:
- Whining or barking
- Hiding away
- Refusal to eat
- Seeking more affection
- Passing urine or faeces in the house
Signs may seem to start before you hear a noise, as dogs have such good hearing that they often pick up on noises before we do. They can go on for long after the fireworks have stopped, as your dog’s stress hormone levels remain high.
Sensible steps to take to help ease your dogs’ anxiety
When possible, we should try to help alleviate our dog’s concerns before fireworks season comes around. This can be done via desensitization; exposing your dog to firework noises on a video and making it a positive experience. Start by keeping the volume low and rewarding calm behaviour with vocal praise, strokes and tempting treats. You can even play a short game of e.g. tug with your dog, if this is something they find enjoyable (rather than over-stimulating). Over time, increase the volume and frequency of the noise, ensuring your dog stays tolerant and relaxed. This process can take weeks or even months.
When fireworks start, be cautious not to act unsettled yourself. Dog’s quickly pick up on our body language and stress levels and may become upset if you are anxious. Act calm and confident and try not to fuss them too much.
Create a safe haven. This can be a cosy den in the middle of the home away from windows. Keep curtains closed and provide lots of blankets for your dog to bury under. Have the TV or radio on in an attempt to drown out sounds. Your dog may appreciate a nice chew or a filled Kong while they settle down for the night.
Tire your dog out before daylight fades. This may mean a long and interesting hike and some socialising with other pooches. Of course, be sure your dog is safely indoors long before any fireworks start.
Pooch products to help ease anxiety
Thankfully, there are now a range of products available that can help keep your dog calm and minimise their stress levels.
- An Adaptil plug in or collar should be used, releasing calming pheromones near your dog.
- Calming food such as Pooch & Mutt’s Calm & Relaxed and Calming Meaty treats should be fed. These can be started several weeks in advance, ensuring the body has plenty of time to utilise the key ingredients. Building up levels of Serotonin and B vitamins may help to combat high cortisol levels and keep your pet on an even keel.
- A ThunderShirt can be used to provide comfort during the loud noises. The gentle pressure stimulates production of oxytocin, creating a sense of calm.
- Prescription anxiolytics. These need to be given under the supervision of a vet, so your dog will have to be physically examined first.
Key dates for your calendar
Where you are in the world determines when you are most likely to hear fireworks. It seems, in the UK at least, that firework season has been getting longer and longer.
You are most likely to hear fireworks on:
- Guy Fawkes
- New Year’s Eve
- Chinese New Year
Other situations that may stress dogs or cause anxiety
Of course, fireworks alone are not the only stressors your dog will face in life. Calming supplements, foods and treats are also useful for those who have separation anxiety, storm phobias and fear of people or other animals.
The key is in identifying that your dog is distressed, determining why that is and formulating a plan. Remember, you are not alone and many dogs suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Your vet will be happy to work with you, and help you come up with a long-term solution to minimise anxiety.